My friend Nora sent me a link to the TED lecture delivered by Lesley Hazleton about her experience of reading the Qur’an ages ago, but between revising my thesis and traveling for conferences and holidays, I have only had the chance to sit down and actually digest it today.
For me, it’s always fascinating to hear how other Westerners have experienced the Qur’an. For my part, I really can’t understand her point about being a tourist in the Qur’an – I was taught how to read the Qur’an as part of my academic training, so it never struck me as strange or foreign – but I appreciate that it’s an experience many people have had.
I’ve often been asked for recommendations of how Westerns should read the Qur’an, and I have to admit, I like her idea of reading several translations side-by-side (with the Arabic text, if you can). Obviously this is a major time commitment, as she herself admits – if people want a single translation to refer to, I generally recommend the one by Mohamed Marmaduke Pickthall, who was an English convert to Islam. As such, he has a solid grasp of both English usage and Islamic thought, and at least in my opinion, manages to blend the two very effectively.
But her talk hits upon one of the main challenges for Westerns reading the Qur’an – the Qur’an is not a straightforward book to read. Unlike the Christian and Hebrew Bibles, there is no narrative through which the theological concepts are transmitted, except for a few passages which retell the stories of Biblical and Arabian prophets and figures. Even these verses often rely on the audience’s previous knowledge of these stories, often opening with phrases like ‘as it is told’ or ‘as the story goes’.
Reading the Qur’an is further complicated because the book as it exists today is not in the same order as the suras (the chapters or books) were revealed. As later verses often alter or abrogate earlier verses, it is absolutely essential to understand the order of revelation, but this is rarely made clear in English translations (Pickthall, to his credit, at least includes a brief summary of each sura, giving a rough dating for each, so at least this can be worked out by the reader, if he or she has the patience to do so).
As someone who studies religious history, I think the point that stands out the most for me in her discussion is her apparent surprise that the Qur’an is flexible. It seems in recent years that we have all accepted the premise that religion is essential static, attempting to force custom, society, and apparently at times even reality, to bend to its beliefs. This is a premise which just does not really pan out when compared to the historical record. Even points of absolutism that had often been assumed about Islam – such as the requirement that the Qur’an be read in Arabic – have been questioned in recent years as more and more Eastern sources become available to Western scholars.
But more than just a misrepresentation of the available evidence, I have always felt that there was something malicious about the idea that religion is static. It is often used by the more vocal atheists as evidence for why religion is unnecessary in our modern, fast-changing world. The reality is that religions always adapt to their environment, and attempt to make their beliefs relevant to new communities and societies. In particular, any religion that encourages missionizing and expansion, such as Islam, has to be willing to adapt to new societies in order to satisfying the requirements of expansion.
A somewhat minor, but I think useful, illustration of this fact is the varieties of women’s dress throughout the Muslim world. Aside from the ongoing debates in Islam about whether modest female dress is really required or should be legally enforced, there is also just a tremendous range of styles of dress throughout the Muslim world (check out all of the styles just of hijabs, which aren’t even the only kind of headcover!), all of which are understood to comply with the requirements of Islamic law, but all of which also represent local style.
Incidentally, for anyone who is interested in reading the Qur’an, there is an online project to compile the translations, which allows you to sort by particular translations (and Arabic script style, if you have a preference there).